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The latest Tom Hanks vehicle, News of the World, is set in the 1800s: It’s a few years after the Civil War, and the greatest argument in our nation’s history has been settled through the bloody clash of state against state, brother against brother. But that doesn’t mean America has put resentment and division behind it.
No one knows this better than Capt. Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Hanks). He rides a circuit of Western outposts, synthesizing stories from newspapers all across the country and retelling them in engaging fashion to disconnected townsfolk who pay a dime a head to gather and listen. He is, in essence, an Old West version of a news anchor.
Kidd is so good in his role that he manages to persuade a group of bitter Texas isolationists to see themselves in the suffering and triumph of some Yankee coal miners. He needs every ounce of his rhetorical and martial skills when he agrees to transport an orphaned German girl, living with the Kiowa tribe so long she’s forgotten her native language, to her relatives in Texas.
As Kidd and little Johanna (Helena Zengel) make their way across the dusty trails, the film becomes a classic odyssey story. Each town, each bend in the road, offers some new threat to escape or riddle to solve. Yet within this simple, quiet plot is a world of emotional complexity.
Hanks has already shown he’s more than capable of carrying an action-heavy film, but News of the World—originally in theaters, then to video on demand platforms—proves he can successfully channel his inner Eastwood as well. He trades fire and steely barbs with a pack of outlaws without sacrificing any of his innate fatherliness and warmth. (The shootouts, mild for the genre, and a few instances of profanity earn a PG-13 rating.)
But Kidd’s more important weapon is empathy. “I hear you. We’re all hurting,” he tells a mob of angry ex-Confederates. It’s hard to recall any other recent film hero making a connection with characters like this. Other scriptwriters likely would have established Kidd’s goodness by having him give a blistering speech of condemnation. But of course he can’t: He was a Confederate too.
Perhaps that’s why, when confronted with the horror of how Johanna came to lose her family and live with a Native tribe—there are whispers of defenseless throats cut, babies brains dashed out—he’s able to counsel, if not forgiveness, at least a determination not to pursue perpetual enmity. He knows the past always provides enough sin to go around, and the only hope for the future is for everyone to move forward with grace.
—This story appears in the Jan. 30, 2021, issue under the headline “Circuit storyteller.”
Editor’s Note: WORLD has updated this story since its original posting to reflect that Capt. Kidd takes Johanna to live with relatives in Texas.